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  • Geoff Mulgan

A theory of collective stupidity: laziness, likes and lemmings

People together can be far smarter than they are alone.  But there are common patterns of collective stupidity that are more than the aggregation of individual stupidity.  Many of these are very visible in fields ranging from politics to finance, ecology to health and they do huge damage to our world.  Indeed the paradox of our times is that higher levels of education, and far greater access to intelligent technologies, so often coincides with collective stupidity.

Some collective stupidity results from obvious sources: ignorance, poor reasoning, bad memory and uncontrolled impulse.  But in this paper I argue that collective stupidity often results from the combination of two less obvious factors:  cognitive energy conservation and positive social feedback maximisation: the human desire to be lazy and liked.  Their interaction helps to explain why the very dynamics that help groups cohere – loyalty, shared identity and commitment – can also fuel some of the common phenomena of collective stupidity, from bandwagons and bubbles to collective self-harm on the part of whole nations.

In other words, collective stupidity can result from very rational and pro-social behaviours, and smart people can collaborate in ways that are anything but smart.  Where Adam Smith’s invisible hand explained how individual selfishness could aggregate into a shared interest, these dynamics have an opposite pattern. They aggregate pro-social and rational tendencies into actions that damage common interests.   

The combination of laziness and desire to be liked makes us like lemmings.  I argue that we need a sub-discipline of collective intelligence to focus on stupidity.   Just as medicine, psychiatry, and brain science advanced through the study of diseases and injuries, this too may generate useful insights that can help us all to be smarter.

The full paper sets out a series of taxonomies, analyses, explanations and prescriptions for countering collective stupidity and can be found below.

Lemmings laziness and likes - a theory of collective stupidity Mulgan
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